Thursday, 3 November 2011
The Heron, Paddington
Somewhat foolishly, and prematurely, I decided back in January that 101 Thai Kitchen in Hammersmith was as good as Thai food gets in this country. I don't know what posessed me really - I knew in my heart of hearts that this still wasn't the meal I was looking for, still wasn't anywhere near approaching the fire and flavour of any dish I'd ordered roadside during a month-long trip around Thailand a decade ago. But at the time, 101 was as good as I'd tried and it suited my dwindling prospects of ever finding anything better to use it as an excuse to stop looking. 101 is very good, of course, it's just not quite actual Thai - it's London-friendly Thai, toned-down, lukewarm, safe.
The Heron is not any of these things. In fact, the Heron is so unlike any other Thai meal I've ever had in the UK I'm still not entirely convinced the building doesn't conceal some kind of wormhole to Bangkok - I'm distinctly heard the whine of a Tuk Tuk and the swish of a riverboat every time our waitress disappeared into the kitchens. The phrase "a little slice of Thailand in London" is massively overused when it comes to describing any old mediocre pad-Thai-and-spring-roll peddler in the capital but this really is the real deal, from the tables of happy Thai ex-pats to the functional plastic furniture, to - yes - the food. Oh glory be, the food.
As a "snack" while waiting for others to arrive, we ordered a dish of chilli cashews. Mixed in with spring onions, shallots, blazingly hot red chillies (which we swiftly learned to circumvent) the real stroke of genius were tiny studs of lime which judging by their diminutive size and soft texture could well have been fresh Kaffir limes, although I'm happy to be corrected on this. If you managed to get all the different elements together in one spoonful, it was a marvellous balance of crunchy and soft, citrus and sweet, freshness and fire.
Embarrassingly, given the events that were to follow, we had to double check with our waiter that he was indeed giving us the "authentic Thai" levels of chilli heat when a bowl of orange curry (containing prawns and chunks of a kind of vegetable omelette) turned out to not quite be as fiery as we were expecting. It was very nice - sweet and sour with the emphasis on sour, and the broth was rich with chunks of prawn and a sharp green herb of some kind, it just wasn't particularly challenging. And then the laab ped arrived.
On taking your first mouthful of the Heron's laab ped (minced duck salad, for want of a better translation, though that hardly does it justice), the initial response is delight at this supremely masterful combination of Thai flavours and textures. There's the sweetness and citrus hit of lemongrass, the rich crunch of spring onions and shallots, the herby hit of fresh Thai basil, the dense meaty goodness of minced duck, and - oh yes - I think there's a bit of chilli there. Hang on, that's quite a lot of chilli. Wow, this is - holy God I can't feel my face. Hidden in amongst the mince like silent assassins are teeny red devils which, if you don't locate and isolate them with surgical precision, create absolute hellfire. The five of us, each hardly a stranger to a bit of heat, were reduced to frothing wrecks, desperately knocking back mouthfuls of Singha in an attempt to keep a lid on the pain. It only partially worked.
From here on, and once we realised we had survived the laab ped with only minor internal damage, the meal was a panting, sweaty joy. An unusual dry catfish salad (Yum pla duk fuu) was like a big fluffy fish biscuit, and soaked up the sour dressing most satisfyingly. Som tam Thai + poo was papaya salad containing chunks of extraordinary powerful chunks of fermented pickled crab - I can't think of a better way of describing them than saying they smell a bit like standing on a beach on the South China Sea next to a raw sewage outlet, but in a good way - they season the vegetables in the same way as nam pla (Thai fish sauce) but in a dirtier, earthier manner. This was certainly uncompromisingly authentic food, unique and vibrant and exciting.
Yum nhaam, a sausage salad from North-Eastern Thailand, was very interesting, the meat being cold and sour instead of hot and fatty. A daily special tom yum soup had that familiar sweet and sour feel but was studded with chunks of slow-cooked hock which added an increasingly intense porky flavour as the broth reduced over the flame. And a fantastic plate of stir-fried clams was as good a seafood dish I've had in any SE Asian restaurant, the sweet bivalves coated in a thick, dark sauce that I can't even begin to guess what went into.
Almost my favourite thing overall (possibly tied with the Devil's Laab Ped) was a plate of minced pork and century egg (Kai yiew mar kra pow krob) which, ironically, was one of the milder dishes in terms of chilli heat but had an unbelievably rich combination of pig fat and silky, jellified egg. It seems that where the dishes weren't catastrophically, explosively chillified the flavour was bumped up in other ways - stronger or more unusual earthy notes (the pickled crab, or the preserved eggs) or using citrus & sour to stunning effect (the cashew snack). Every dish was balanced and considered and cooked to perfection - there was no menu padding, no lazy substitutions of meat in the same sauce, nothing that wasn't a complete and wholly successful combination of flavours and textures.
For sheer, exhilarating Thai authenticity, then, I am convinced you can't do any better in the UK. But on that same note, food this challenging isn't for everyone. As we moaned and groaned (equally in pain and pleasure) our way through the last morsel of laab it dawned on us that other than a few other obsessively foolhardy foodies there probably weren't many people that could cope with quite this amount of catastrophic heat or uncompromising flavour (or, for that matter, the price - at £36 a head with admittedly a lot of food but only a couple of beers each it's not that cheap). But herein lies the Heron's greatest achievement - to bring Thai food, real, actual Thai food to London without bending even slightly to local tastes. It is the reason it probably won't expand out of a strange, strip-lit basement room in an estate pub in Paddington, but it is also the reason it's one of the best meals I've had anywhere this year. If you've got the stomach for it (and believe me, based on the last 12 hours I've just had, I'm not completely sure I do) then here, finally, is what you've been waiting for. If not, I'm sure it's only a short trot to your nearest Thai Square. The choice, and the challenge, is yours.
Many thanks to Hollow Legs for reminding me what we ate last night; her report of the meal is here. We are also massively indebted to London-based Thai blogger The Skinny Bib and this astonishing post, in which he helpefully translates into English the entire menu! Take a printout if you're planning a trip yourself.